“Wait. So Renée asked you to ask me to go to the Halloween party she’s throwing?”
Alex nodded. “Though why she did not ask you herself, I do not know. It is not as if we do not all have class together after lunch.”
“Yeah.” Isabel pushed the peas on her lunch tray around with her fork, looking pensive. “I... does that mean she was too nervous to ask me herself?”
Alex threw his hands in the air. “Do not ask me! I do not know. I am only passing along message.”
“Fine. I guess I can’t exactly expect you to pick up on the nuances of interpersonal relationships.” Isabel paused, catching sight of Rosemary over Alex’s shoulder and grinning. “And speaking of interpersonal relationships, here comes your little girlfriend.”
Alex muttered something incoherent in protest and slumped down in his chair, his ears turning bright red. A few moments later and Rosemary plopped her tray down next to Alex’s and slid into the seat next to him.
“Let me guess, she’s teasing you about us being a couple again,” Rosemary said, nudging Alex gently in the side with her elbow. His ears remained bright red, but he did straighten up at her nudge, sending a shy smile her way. “As if I have time to date anyone with college application season starting. I loathe writing essays.”
“Were you invited to Renée’s party this weekend?” Isabel asked, trying to remain nonchalant. “Alex and I are going.”
“I never said—“ Alex started to protest, before Isabel cut him off with a pleading expression. “Oh, fine,” he muttered, crossing his arms across his chest. “I will go to party with you. Keep you out of trouble.”
“Somehow, I doubt you’ll be adequate to the task,” Rosemary said drily. “You’re a man of many talents, but ‘keep Isabel Lovelace from engaging in shenanigans’ isn’t one of them.”
“And how do you know that?” Alex said indignantly.
“Because half the time you’re right in there with her, egging her on by pretending to be disinterested,” Rosemary said, sounding as if she were trying not to giggle.
Isabel raised her eyebrows. “She has a point.”
“I should never have made mistake of introducing you two,” Alex muttered in the direction of his tray. “Every day, you gang up on me.”
“We were acquainted before you introduced us, you know,” Rosemary pointed out kindly.
“Yes, but now you are friends. Who gang up on me.”
“Anyway. The party?” Isabel asked.
“I haven’t received an invitation yet, but I don’t really know her all that well, so that’s not that surprising.” Rosemary shrugged. “But like I said, college applications are keeping me busy.”
“You’re as bad as that one,” Isabel said, jerking her head towards Alex. “All work and no play.” Alex was blushing again, and Isabel had an idea. “I’ll get you an invite. You can help Alex restrain me.”
Rosemary looked dubious about this, and she might as well; she was the better part of a foot shorter than Isabel herself was, and while Rosemary might have the advantage in weight if it came to physically restraining Isabel from shenanigans, Isabel definitely had the advantage in muscle.
Alex cleared his throat and added “If I must attend to keep an eye on Isabel, I would enjoy your company,” in a mutter that was barely audible.
Isabel almost wanted to cheer. He had been in denial about having a crush on Rosemary ever since she had been assigned as his lab partner in both of his science classes this year, and it was about time he made a move, especially when Rosemary was so clearly waiting for him to give her some indication that he was interested too. This wasn’t much of one, but Isabel would take it. And hopefully her idea would help him get a little further. “We’ll ask Renée next period if it’s okay for you to come.”
Rosemary looked flustered for a moment. “Oh, all right. Is it a costume party?”
Alex, who had started shoveling down his lunch, nodded. “Or at least Renée said to dress up. Suppose she could mean evening wear.”
Rosemary stifled a giggle and appeared to be trying not to choke on the bite of chicken sandwich she’d just taken. “Time to break out your tuxedos, darlings. Might as well get used to wearing them before prom season rolls around.”
Isabel wondered how Rosemary had come to the conclusion—an admittedly accurate conclusion—that Isabel was planning to wear a tux if she went to prom. But by now it was five minutes until the bell, so instead she focused on shoveling lunch down as quickly as possible.
“Do you have to tease me about Rosemary?” Alex complained during the walk to English, once Rosemary had parted ways with them in the halls. “She is my friend. It makes things very awkward.”
Isabel rolled her eyes. “At least if I tease you about her you get indignant enough to fight me about it. If I don’t, you just spend lunch period staring at her all moony-eyed and not talking at all.”
This made Alex blush so hard that his entire scalp turned red. “I do not!” he squeaked in protest.
“You really need to just rip the bandaid off and ask her out on a date. Its not like you two don’t already have your little bi-weekly study groups.”
Alex went silent for a moment. “I like being friends with her. It is too... complicated otherwise.”
Isabel sighed. “Well, friends can ask friends to go to parties.” She slid into her seat next to Renée in English, wondering again why the other girl hadn’t done the asking. Was it because they weren’t as good of friends as Isabel had thought?
Or was it because Renée wanted to be more than friends?
“Hey. Of course I’ll go to your party,” Isabel said, lounging back into her seat.
Renée felt a small spot of tension between her shoulder blades release. “Great! That’s... uh. That’s great news.” The tension returned. Way to be awkward and sound like she meant the opposite.
Isabel raised her eyebrows and smirked. Maybe she understood that it was just awkwardness. Maybe... oh, hell, she was leaning towards Renée across the aisle between their seats.
The bell rang, and Isabel subsided back into her seat. So did Renée a second later, when she realized she had been leaning towards Isabel herself.
They studiously ignored one another for the rest of class, but at the end Isabel grabbed the sleeve of Renée’s hoodie as she got to her feet. “Hey, just a sec.”
Renée paused. “Yeah?”
Isabel glanced over her shoulder and waved Alex off as he paused by the door, waiting for her. “You know Rosemary, right?”
Renée wracked her brain. “Five foot nothing, chubby, dated Al Bennett last year?” At Isabel’s nod, she added, “Yeah, she does tech work sometimes for plays. Why?”
“Invite her to your party too, would you?” Isabel swung carelessly to her feet and gathered her books up.
Renée felt a brief stab of jealousy. “I guess I could do that.”
“Thanks.” Isabel laughed. “She keeps flirting with Alex and it’s kind of hilarious how dense he is. But all they ever do when they hang out is homework, so I thought it might help to force them to do something else for a change.”
Renée felt a surge of relief. “I’ll invite her.”
Isabel shot Renée a grin that made Renée’s heart thump wildly in her chest for a moment. “Thanks again. See you tomorrow.”
Renée could not stop smiling for the rest of the day.
Alex’s sister, Olga, dropped him off at Renée’s party on Saturday night. He frowned at the lack of cars in the driveway, but went up the front walk and knocked on the door.
Renée answered the door, dressed like Frankenstein’s monster. “Like I thought. No costume!”
Alex looked down at himself. “I am wearing my spookiest hoodie!”
“And that’s why I asked you to show up a half hour early. Come on.” Before he could protest, Renée grabbed him by the arm and pulled him deeper into the house. Alex caught a glimpse of Renée’s parents in the kitchen and waved awkwardly at them as he went by; they were both teachers, and while he didn’t have any classes with them this year, he was still friendly with them.
“Don’t worry, they’ve got a party of their own to go to,” Renée said, shoving Alex into a bathroom. “Now, here, put this on—” she held up a pinstriped suit that looked surprisingly close to Alex’s size “—and then I’ll be back to put your makeup on.”
“Makeup?” Alex protested. “I will wear costume, but…”
“It’s just for my party. The costume won’t look right without it,” Renée said in a voice that brooked no refusal. And then she shut him up in the bathroom with the costume.
Alex sighed and got dressed, and a few minutes later let Renée back in to apply the threatened makeup. “Eugh, that is cold. What are you putting on me?”
“Wait and see!” Renée said cheerfully. Once she was done, she adjusted the strange, spiky bow-tie-like contraption that Alex had not been certain how to attach to the collar of his shirt. “There we go.”
When Alex returned his glasses to his face and turned to face the mirror, he found that Renée had plastered his face with the semblance of a skull. “I am… skeleton in suit?” he asked.
“Jack Skellington,” Renée responded.
Renée gave him a frowning look. “Nightmare Before Christmas?”
“Does not ring bell.”
“Okay, so we’re going to have a movie night…”
Alex frowned. “That sounds like a threat.”
“Only if you hate musicals,” Renée said, grinning down at him.
“Ah, it is threat.”
Renée laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. “Come help me set things up.”
Once other people started arriving, Alex drifted to a corner of Renée’s living room, a bowl of skittles in hand. This was only the second party he had ever been to, and he wasn’t any more comfortable at it than he had been at the first. It seemed like the point was to sit around and talk far too loudly and play offensive games—someone had pulled out a copy of Cards Against Humanity—none of which were things Alex liked to do normally. And Isabel wasn’t there yet, and the room was too loud, and—
“Alex? You all right?” A hand touched him gently on the elbow.
He let out a tight breath that he hadn’t been aware he had been holding. Rosemary was standing there looking… well, rather like a rag doll of some sort, her hair braided with red yarn, large stitches drawn on her skin, and a patchwork dress completing the look. “I do not like parties.”
“How about we go stand outside for a bit? It’s not too cold out there.”
Alex nodded and she lead him out to Renée’s front porch, sitting him down on the hanging wooden seat there before settling at his side.
“Nice costume,” she said, leaning briefly against him, her shoulder brushing his. “I almost didn’t recognize you in all of that.”
Alex took a deep breath of the cool night air and relaxed further. “Renée insisted I wear costume.”
Rosemary smiled sidelong at him. “I think it’s cute.” Her lashes lowered and she nibbled on her lower lip nervously. “You look… cute.”
Alex blushed. “I… ah… so do you.” And she did. He still wasn’t quite sure what or who she was meant to be dressed up as, but she was cute. And it was fine to acknowledge when your friends looked cute, right?
Isabel came strolling her way up the front walk just then, wearing a white dress that looked like it was made out of a sheet, her hair teased as tall as it would go, with a stark white streak at each temple. “Hey, what are you two doing out here? Party over already?”
“I just got a little overwhelmed, and Alex said he’d keep me company,” Rosemary said.
Isabel wouldn’t be fooled by that at all, but Alex smiled gratefully down at Rosemary anyway. “Why are you so late, anyway?” he asked Isabel.
Isabel made a face. “Basketball practice ran over, then it took longer than I expected to put on all of this. And speaking of costumes…” She looked them both over, a delighted smile on her face. “That sure is an adorable couple’s costume for two people who definitely aren’t dating.”
“We aren’t dating!” they shouted back together.
Isabel laughed, already halfway through the front door. “Uh-huh. Very convincing. Have a fun night, you two.”
Rosemary turned to Alex, looking stricken. “Oh, god, she’s right. Renée asked me what I was dressing up as when she invited me, but I didn’t think… are your friends trying to set us up through Halloween costumes?”
“Renée!” Alex glared down at his own outfit. “I cannot believe…”
“I mean, I like you, but…”
“We’re good friends! That is all!”
“Exactly!” Rosemary let out a little huff of breath and seemed to deflate. “Exactly,” she said, sounding a little less certain. And then her eyes lit up. “Hey, wait a second. Isabel was dressed up like the Bride of Frankenstein, which means…”
Alex frowned for a moment… and then realized what Rosemary was getting at. “Revenge will be ours,” he promised.
Isabel shuffled her way through the crowded living room towards the kitchen, saying her hellos as she went. She hadn’t had a chance to eat a proper dinner after practice, and she was starving and planning to raid whatever snacks were still left over.
When she got to the kitchen, Renée was standing on the other side of it, poking through the fridge. Her costume seemed to involve a dark suit of some kind, though Isabel couldn’t really tell what she was supposed to be dressed as with her head ducked down the way it was.
“It’ll have to be more pizza rolls,” Renée muttered, standing up and shutting the fridge before diving into the freezer. She pulled a bag out and turned. And then, as she caught sight of Isabel, she dropped the bag of pizza rolls on the floor.
“Hey, uh…” But Isabel couldn’t figure out what to say. She’d expected the Bride of Frankenstein to be unpopular enough that her costume would be unique. But what she hadn’t expected was her crush to be wearing the costume of her counterpart.
“That sure is cute couple’s costume for two people who are not dating!” came a voice from the doorway to the kitchen.
“SHUT UP, ALEX!” they roared together.